September 17, 2018
Focus on banking and finance

Newer nonprofits without the resources for large fundraisers have to get creative

PHOTO/KEV COOL PHOTOGRAPHY
Philippe Berry struts down the runway at the Love Your Labels' Queer AF Art & Fashion Show.

For large, established nonprofits, fundraising is a matter for dedicated full-time staff to build relationships with deep-pocketed donors and attend conferences on best practices. But if you're a small or fledgling organization, it's a whole different matter.

While an annual gala like UMass Memorial Health Care's Winter Ball raises more than $1 million in one night, the six founders behind the seven-month-old nonprofit Love Your Labels were thrilled when their fashion show raised $2,000 above its costs, which will go toward its fashion design program for teenagers between 13 and 18 to also serve as a safe space to discuss gender and the intersections of diverse identities.

"When the average person thinks of a fundraiser, they think of a gala style sit-down event," said Joshua Croke, the group's president.

But Croke said the group didn't want to plan an event targeted at wealthy attendees. Instead, it was trying to reach all sorts of people who might respond to its vision of diversity within the fashion world. Worcester venue Electric Haze agreed to host the event for free, and a DJ donated his time, which helped keep the event's expenses under control.

Croke said people in Worcester are often unused to paying a cover charge at a bar, but attendees were willing to pay because they wanted to support the group and the cool factor of a show challenging norms.

Changing the approach to events

African Community Education is a bit more established than Love Your Labels, with 12 years of history supporting children from Worcester's African immigrant and refugee communities. But Tim O'Neil, the organization's marketing and fundraising coordinator, said the nonprofit is experimenting with a fundraiser more relevant to its stakeholders.

ACE has held a traditional gala in previous years. For this year's event where the nonprofit wants to raise $50,000, O'Neil said, it's still planning food, speakers, and a silent auction, but it's using the opportunity to introduce funders to the students it supports.

"We have students preparing projects with the history and culture of their own countries," he said. "Guests can learn about students, where they come from – get to know them on an individual level."

The students who benefit from African Community Education perform at its Annual Gala.

The student projects harmonize well with ACE's work, O'Neil said. The group helps middle and high school kids work on creative projects, as well as providing academic support, so the gala projects have become part of the curriculum.

In addition to changing the format, O'Neil said, ACE is expanding the ways it seeks funds for the gala. It's working with an online peer fundraising platform, allowing staff and volunteers to fundraise on the group's behalf within their own social networks. It has formed relationships with more than 10 organizations at local colleges, allowing students to create their own fundraising teams. Members of the Black Student Union at Clark University created individual and team pages with their own fundraising goals, and are raising money through small events or social media.

O'Neil said holding annual events like the ACE gala helps create a stable funding stream for an organization.

"People that start out just coming as guests, the next year they might go to the CEO of their company, who might be willing to be a sponsor," he said.

Getting your name out there

It isn't always easy to raise money as a small group, O'Neil said. Corporate sponsors often are giving money to the United Way, which supports ACE, and it may be hard to get a direct donation. But fundraising remains important because it's a source of unrestricted funding to help pay staff salaries and expenses targeted grants won't cover.

Laura Marotta, executive director and cofounder of Creative Hub Worcester, said her nonprofit, which organizes youth art programs, is in an unusual position for a small and relatively young organization founded in 2015. It's in the midst of a large capital campaign, seeking $8 million to transform the former Boy's Club of Worcester on Ionic Ave. into a space with room for classroom, educational programming.

But Marotta said the group has done much smaller scale fundraisers offering learning experiences. One lesson, she said, is if you have to pay for a venue and refreshments, it's not always easy to make much money beyond recouping expenses. Still, she said, it may be valuable anyway.

"Sometimes they're worth it because it helps get the word out there," she said.

In certain instances, a more efficient way of raising funds can be an online crowdfunded campaign, Marotta said, but there are questions about the best way to do that as well. She said Creative Hub has done two crowdfunding pushes, one much more successful than the other. The difference, she said, seemed to be partly about the size and specificity of the group's needs.

"If you're saying 'I have $8 million in construction costs,' people don't feel their $5 is going to make an impact," she said. "People don't want to pay for a sprinkler system or a hot water boiler."

On the other hand, when the group ran a short five-day drive to $5,000 for scholarships for a summer program, the response was strong. The impact of each gift was clear and specific, and the time constraint added a sense of urgency.

"It was that social media thing – how many people can share this?" she said.

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